Successful examples of actors turning to producing are rare, especially in opera. Jeanne Moreau and copine Josée Dayan seriously came adrift when they wrecked Verdi’s Attila at the Paris Opera in 2001.
So reading Fanny Ardant bubbling happily in the press before the first night of Messager’s once popular, now largely forgotten, comic opera Véronique made us fear the worse. No, she didn’t know the work, “Mozart and Wagner more her thing”. Clearly the Châtelet’s boss Jean-Luc Choplin had suggested the venture over one of those glamorous dîners en ville where high politics is discussed and full-time stage directors get overlooked.
And yet Ardant has produced a hugely enjoyable show. She has all the quirks of the opera virgin – far too much toing and froing in the first act before she collapses from exhaustion – but her nostalgically prosperous 1950s Paris is just as make-believe as the original Louis Philippe setting must have seemed to audiences in 1898. And she is backed up with a superb production team: Benoît Duteurtre has artfully updated the dialogues, Dominique Borg’s Dior new look costumes provide a catwalk of period haute couture and Ian Falconer’s clever play-off between background film and lavish sets climaxes in a stunning society ball.
In this pastel, escapist cinema, where even shop assistants seem to have avoided post-war rationing, the star is Audrey Hepburn, or rather her lookalike in the form of pretty Amel Brahim-Djelloul, perfect as Véronique: tuneful soprano voice, extraordinary diction and a girlish enthusiasm that knocks us for six. Doris Lamprecht is a hoot as her aunt Ermerance de Champ d’Azur, lamenting her life on the shelf with comically robust chest notes; Laurent Alvaro is a charmingly high libido Coquenard and Gilles Ragon a sound Loustot.
So who picked Dietrich Henschel to play the philandering Florestan? Duteurtre’s rewrite says he was brought up in Germany, but his heavily accented French is sinister and his voice now lacks the essential éclat. The clumsy over-amplification of the dialogues is equally unfortunate but Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s vivacious conducting of his Ensemble Matheus convinces us that Messager was much more than the man who conducted the first performance of Pelléas.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published